politics

Gavin Williamson must leave over school shambles, Tories urge Boris Johnson


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ory backbenchers are pressing for the sacking of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson after his role in the school closure fiasco.

A senior backbencher said Mr Williamson had “lacked the clout” to keep schools open and his entire department appeared “dysfunctional” and that he should go in the next reshuffle.

Downing Street said on Wednesday that Boris Johnson has full confidence in Mr Williamson.

“It’s a huge brief and the Prime Minister believes the Education Secretary is doing it to his utmost ability,” press secretary Allegra Stratton told reporters.

Asked why Mr Johnson thought him the the best person for the job, she said he had produced a “full and comprehensive” package of measures for children who will be educated at home.

“The education secretary has been coming forward today with details, plans for people to be educated while not physically in school,” she told reporters.

“So he’s set out a full and comprehensive package for those kids that are not the children of key workers or critical workers who are being educated now at home.

“The PM thinks the package of measures is the right set.”

The pressure on Mr Williamson comes at a time of agitation among Tory Right-wingers dismayed to learn that the new lockdown regulations, putting the national closedown into law, are not down to expire until March 31 — five or six weeks later than was implied when Mr Johnson said rules might be eased in February.

“Clearly it was appalling and badly handled. Gavin Williamson’s only saving grace is that he wanted schools to stay open but he was crushed by the Health Department and the Cabinet Office. If he had more clout he could have told Health to f*** off.”

One source said that the MPs’ WhatsApp group was deluged with “lines to take” from Mr Williamson at the weekend stressing that schools were safe for pupils and teachers. 

“It is undermining of MPs and the Government when you spend a weekend saying schools will be safe and available to parents, then have the rug pulled away after one day of lessons.”

Today’s Commons vote on lockdown is expected to be won comfortably, with no repeat of the large rebellion by 55 Tory MPs who voted against the tiers system in early December.  

MPs say new infection figures have “changed the politics”. The Covid Recovery Group of MPs, which is sceptical about lockdowns, has switched its focus to pressing for speedier vaccinations.

( Jeremy Selwyn )

Mr Williamson was setting out plans for online learning and schools in the Commons this afternoon. MPs were hoping he would say how pupils will be graded after the decision to cancel summer A-level and GCSE exams.

Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins said there was no guarantee that schools would be able to return after the scheduled February break. She told the BBC: “I think it will really depend on the epidemiology of the virus… we will have to look at it by year, age group by age group, as happened the first time round, and the final decisions will lay with Government.”  

Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon told Sky the situation regarding schools was “a mess”.  

“I think now we have to move on and make sure we have an exam system that is a level playing field for students and fair to the disadvantaged,” he said.  

He called for retired teachers to be hired to check every   pupil’s exam grades to ensure they are fairly assessed, as they were too important to “rely  on an algorithm”. He also called for English and maths exams to go ahead as normal, with pupils sitting written papers in exam halls with social distancing.  

More than half a million computer devices have been issued to children.  Mr Williamson is expected to announce more are to be distributed. Dr Tina Isaacs, honorary associate professor in educational assessment at UCL’s Institute of Education, said the best we can hope for is a “fair enough” system of grading GCSEs and A-levels. She said: “There is no absolutely fair way of doing this.”



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